November 2006

The Nation Reviewed

For the record

By Malcolm Knox
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

‘The Library of Babel’, a 1941 story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, is often read as a prefigurement of the internet. Every book in the library has 410 pages, made up of the letters of the standard alphabet. The catch is that these letters are arranged in every possible permutation; so, while it is known that the Bible and Don Quixote and every other work of literature, great and small and yet to be written, are in the library, nobody has ever found more than a single coherent sentence. It is cause for great celebration when some librarian stumbles across a recognisable word, in any language.

It is scarcely less daunting to stand in the library of Australian Hansard, the written record of proceedings in the chambers and committees of our federal and state parliaments. The immensity of these records gives a feeling akin to counting the stars at night: a universe not quite infinite, yet numberless. But let's give it a crack. On an average day, 140 A4 pages of Hansard are produced in Canberra. At four sitting days a week and about 28 sitting weeks a year, that gives us about 15,680 pages a year, or 1,646,400 pages since Federation, give or take a few thousand. State Hansards go back longer. All up, we might be looking at 15 million pages, a sizeable haystack for anyone seeking a needle.

Since the early 1980s, the Commonwealth Hansard has been digitised and searchable (http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au), giving us a precursor of Google Print, another project of dizzying ambition whereby every book in the world's great libraries will be converted to searchable text. Leather-bound volumes of the Commonwealth Hansard live in the National Library, Parliamentary Library and some other deposit libraries, as required by the Copyright Act 1968. There are plans afoot to digitise them, too.

The image of Hansard reporters and editors is of po-faced worker bees. They take a certain pride in this. The New South Wales Parliament's Hansard Gleanings from 1995 summarises their informal motto: "Let us be rid of the idea that there is something called Hansard style. Style in speechmaking belongs to the members. Our task is to ensure that each speech is reported, so far as possible, in the member's own words, and that the member's style is apparent throughout."

According to Paul Oglethorpe, the Acting Director, Chambers, of the Department of Parliamentary Services, each day 12 Hansard editors rotate in 7.5-minute shifts. Since 2000, they have not used stenography (pen and ink died out decades ago) and instead take Hansard on digital audio-recorders. Each editor has 90 minutes to transcribe their 7.5 minutes of material, and then they're back in the chamber. The federal parliament has a staff of 65 Hansard editors.

Wandering around Hansard's online search engine, I try to summon memories. I think of the hubris of Paul Keating telling John Howard that he won't call an early election, because "I want to do you slowly". The Keating leer is vivid and priceless but the memory has its failings: it was John Hewson whom Keating promised to do slowly, and he did.

Memories of Keating are amplified by repetition. Search Hansard for "unrepresentative swill", and you'll find the words first appeared on 4 November 1992, when Keating was engaged in a debate on Loan Council arrangements. The phrase has since been repeated 116 times in parliament, most recently by Robert Hill in his valedictory speech. Thus is folklore created.

Keating's phrase was used 16 times in parliament on 5 November 1992, during a debate on unparliamentary language. But "unrepresentative swill" was left in the Hansard - rendering it parliamentary. What, on the other hand, gets struck out, or excluded by mercy or craven shame? Interjections, funnily enough, are left in only if they draw a response. Offensive or objectionable remarks do not make it in (Keating set new limits for these subjective criteria), nor comments made after the allotted speaking time has expired. Interestingly, members are allowed to read and revise the Hansard of their speeches, so long as they don't change the sense of the words or include new material.

Left in Hansard, for better or worse, are such lowlights as Pauline Hanson's maiden speech, at 5.15 pm on 10 September 1996. It can be found by typing in the keywords "swamped" and "Asians". Aside from more than a million Australians and a few billion elsewhere, the two people most traduced in Hanson's speech are Paul Hasluck and Arthur Calwell, both of whom she quotes approvingly, retrofitting their antique sentiments to her modern template: literally, rewriting history. Hasluck and Calwell left a great deal on Hansard, but before the digital era. Their dignity lies concealed and undefended in Hansard's "dark web".

The most searched-for individual on the internet last year was Paris Hilton, and the most searched-for man was Eminem. In the alternative universe of the Australian parliament, Paris Hilton has never been mentioned, while Eminem has been mentioned six times only, each time in complaints about his lyrics. (The word "sluts", another highly sought-after term on the internet, appears in Hansard just four times, on each occasion in quotes from an Eminem song.) "iPod" makes it into Hansard three times, once as part of a ruling that a member listening to one, as Jackie Kelly did this year, was out of order. PlayStations are winning the race against Xboxes, but theirs is a Pyrrhic victory: five mentions to two. The most sought-after Australian celebrity on the internet, Kylie Minogue, has made it into Hansard 14 times. The most sought-after Australian book, The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, has made it in 12 times; The Da Vinci Code has only been mentioned once. The king of recent books, as far as Hansard is concerned, is The Latham Diaries, appearing 36 times in the past year, invariably when quoted by Coalition members.

What do we make of this almost complete lack of intersection between the internet and Hansard? Are Commonwealth parliamentarians out of touch, or is the internet? Have we found, in our parliaments, a universe that runs in perfect parallel with popular culture - and would that necessarily be a bad thing?

Millions of pages of Hansard are preserved in our libraries, a fate denied to all other written material. There is an intrinsic worth to these documents that needs no defence. But also they are kept, presumably, for reasons of accountability. If a member of parliament has lied in the house, or incriminated himself or herself, or said something later contradicted, then those words in the Hansard are taken as sacrosanct. But are they, in practice? When the doctrine of ministerial responsibility has been degraded to irrelevance, when ministers are allowed to keep their positions when their self-defence is incompetence rather than knavery, how soon will it be before misleading the chamber is permissible? As the American writer Mark Danner asks, have we entered an age where there is no accountability for politicians who lie? If so, what are these billions of preserved words for?

Oh, I forgot: "There will be no stability - no security - for the nations of the Gulf until Iraq is disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction - totally and permanently." (John Howard, Ministerial Statements, Commonwealth Hansard, 4 February 2003)

The Library of Babel is a sphere whose centre could be anywhere and whose circumference is inaccessible. Borges's story is one of despair, because the library outlives humans' ability to use it meaningfully. "The human species," Borges wrote, "is about to be extinguished, but the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret."

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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